The office door was open. Children from the Koranic school adjoining the mosque streamed past, laughing and jostling. Worshipers from the evening prayer service, which the young men had just left, poured into the parking lot. If the police had been alerted in any way, the two young men would have been instantly arrested, or worse. But neither appeared nervous about possible betrayal.
“It is not the people of Nigeria, it is only the army and the police who are against us,” said one of the men, explaining their membership in Boko Haram, the militant group that has claimed responsibility for killing hundreds in its battle against the Nigerian government. “Millions of people in Kano State are supporting us.”
His bravado notwithstanding, the violent Islamist army operating out of these dusty alleyways, ready to lash out and quickly fade back, is deeply enmeshed in the fabric of life in this sprawling metropolis, succored by an uneasy mix of fear and sympathy among the millions of impoverished people here.
The group’s lethality is undeniable. Boko Haram unleashed a hail of bullets and homemade bombs here last month to deadly effect: as many as 300 were killed in a few hours in the group’s deadliest and most organized assault yet after two years of attacks across northern Nigeria. It was an unprecedented wave of coordinated suicide bombing, sustained gunfire and explosions, much of it directed against the police.
But while Western and local officials cite the militants’ growing links to terrorist organizations in the region — presenting the ties as a reason behind the group’s increasingly deadly tactics and a cause for global concern — Boko Haram is not the imported, “foreign” menace Nigerian authorities depict it to be.
Since 2009, the group has killed well over 900 people, Human Rights Watch says. Yet on the streets of Kano, the government is more readily denounced than the militants. Anger at the pervasive squalor, not at the recent violence, dominates. Crowds quickly gather around to voice their heated discontent, not with Boko Haram, but with what they describe as a shared enemy: the Nigerian state, seen by the poor here as a purveyor of inequality.
“People are supporting them because the government is cheating them,” said Mohammed Ghali, the imam at the mosque where the two Boko Haram members pray. Imam Ghali is known as an intermediary between the militants and the authorities, and while open backing for the group can put almost anyone in the cross hairs of the Nigerian security services, there appears to be no shortage of Boko Haram supporters here.
“At any time I am ready to join them, to fight injustice in this country,” said Abdullahi Garba, a candy vendor who came into Imam Ghali’s office.
Of course, Boko Haram is feared and loathed by countless residents as well. Its brutal show of firepower here in Kano, a commercial center of about four million that for centuries has been a major entrepôt at the Sahara’s edge, has left many residents in shock. The attackers came on foot, by motorcycle and by car, throwing fertilizer bombs and pulling rifles from rice sacks, mowing down anybody who appeared to be in uniform. There were even decapitated bodies among the mounds of corpses the day after, said a witness, Nasir Adhama, who owns a textile factory with his family near one of the attack sites.
“When you saw this road, it was just shed with blood,” Mr. Adhama said. “Everywhere there were dead bodies. They passed through this place, just firing and shooting.”
One of the young men at the mosque said he had participated in the planning for the attack, asserting that the group had received no outside help.
But a United Nations report published in January cited regional officials as saying that “Boko Haram had established links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” and that “some of its members from Nigeria and Chad had received training in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb camps in Mali during the summer of 2011.” Seven Boko Haram members passing through Niger were arrested with “names and contact details” of members of the Qaeda affiliate, the United Nations report said.